Published December 12, 2013
| Consumer Reports
Verizon, the nation’s second largest provider of landline phone service, is joining other telecommunications companies by no longer providing free backup batteries needed so its digital voice telephone service continues to operate during a blackout.
The company said that as of early as December, new FiOS customers who want a backup battery will have to pay a one-time charge of $30, buy it elsewhere, or do without.
During a blackout, FiOS customers without a battery, household generator, or some other type of backup power system will lose their landline voice service, including access to emergency 911. (Read our generator buying guide.)
Verizon’s decision comes about 14 months after Superstorm Sandy knocked out power to millions of homes and disrupted cell phone service in widespread areas.
“We will no longer provide the free 12-volt lead-acid battery. We’ll begin the policy later this month or early January,” says Verizon spokesman William Kula. New FiOS business customers will continue to receive a free battery, at least for the time being, according to Kula.
Verizon joins other carriers, including Time Warner, Cablevision, CenturyLink, and, most recently, Comcast and Cox Communications, in requiring new customers who want a backup battery to pay extra for it.
AT&T, the nation’s largest provider of landline service, says it has no plan to begin charging customers extra for backup power equipment that is included with installation of its digital phone service. Telecommunications company RCN says it too will continue to provide free backup batteries, as well as replacing worn-out batteries at no charge.
The issue involves the nation’s transition from copper-line phone service to digital systems that run on fiber optic cable. Copper lines carry not only the communications signal but also the electricity needed to operate a standard corded phone, even during a blackout, a capability fiber-optic cables lack. The more than 5.5 million existing FiOS residential and small-business customers had free backup batteries included with their installation. The battery provides up to eight hours of standby time, less if phones are used to make or receive calls.
Verizon’s decision to eliminate the free batteries drew criticism from Edgar Dworsky, the former Massachusetts assistant attorney general who runs ConsumerWorld.org. Dworsky is a member of the Verizon Consumer Advisory Board. “I’m upset because I frankly think every telephone provider should provide backup batteries so that digital phone service will work in an emergency,” he says.
The Federal Communications Commission requires telecommunications companies to provide emergency 911 access to digital landline phone users, but it does not mandate that they provide a way to keep phones operating during power outages, when 911 access may be needed the most.
Read “Surprise! Your High-Tech Home Phone System Could Go Dead in an Emergency" to learn how prolong phone service when the lights go out.
Verizon made the decision following a pilot program it conducted last summer in parts of Texas and Florida, according to Kula. He says 93 percent of the tens of thousands of new customers who were given the option to buy the battery decided against it, adding that no customers chose not to order FiOS because Verizon was not providing the battery for free.
“The customers expressed loud and clear that the battery wasn’t important to them,” he says.
Dworsky says Verizon has reached the wrong conclusion from the Texas and Florida test. “It demonstrates that consumers are cheap,” he notes. “My sense is consumers haven’t evaluated the risk of saving the $29.99 versus what would happen if they called 911 during a power outage and their phone was dead.”
Brian Fontes, CEO and executive director of the National Emergency Numbers Association, agrees that many people probably don’t understand the power limitations of digital landline phone systems, especially older people who are used to having working phones when the power fails.
But he stops short of saying that telecommunications companies should be required to provide free batteries. He notes that many households have given up landline service and depend entirely on cell phones. However, he says, the federal government and telecommunications companies need to make sure people comprehend the power limitations of digital phone systems.
“It is critical they understand that this is not your daddy’s phone system,” he says.
When subscribing to or renewing phone service, insist that the carrier provide at least one backup battery. If that doesn't work, buy one or more batteries, but shop around. We found sellers on Amazon.com offering backup batteries that fit the Verizon systems for as low as $18, including shipping.
Also, keep an old-fashioned wired telephone handy because most cordless phones don’t operate in a blackout, although some do. Check our cordless phone buying guide for more information. If there’s a prolonged power outage, consider disconnecting the backup battery or, if possible, shutting it off so that it doesn’t drain while on standby. You won’t be able to receive calls, but you’ll maintain 911 access.
Finally, maintain a fully charged cell phone that works from your home. If you can change your cell phone battery, it’s also worth considering keeping a fully charged second one.
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